Why the rich, cultural world of 21st century video gaming is one worth exploring.
Gaming is one of the most culturally enlightening pastimes available to us today. At the press of a button – or the click of a mouse – we are able to open the door to a vast other-world of almost incomprehensible scale that can open our minds to the arts, sciences, and society. For the sheer convenience of firing up your console or computer and filling your brain with all that your games offer, it can certainly beat a trip to a good museum. Perhaps the greatest beauty of all, however, is that it does all this without us even realising – whether you’re playing Assassin’s Creed, Total War or Euro Truck Simulator.
Understandably, this may seem like nonsense to some; what does Assassins Creed bring to the table past satisfying our need to climb everything, and kill everyone in sight? What can Grand Theft Auto offer beyond fast cars, explosions and gratuitous violence? What does Train Simulator achieve besides stopping you from turning half of the house into a model railway? Which excerpt of this should I send in to Pseud’s Corner of Private Eye?
But this is precisely the point; to a great majority of people, particularly those with a particular penchant for seemingly low-culture AAA titles, they may only game because of what the games immediately offer, and thus balk at the idea that gaming can, passively, be intellectually stimulating. However, to those with more of an open mind, the possibilities for learning – both directly and indirectly – are endless.
Take the Assassins Creed franchise. Whilst most famous for being a parkour-and-death simulator, it is a great insight into some of the most pivotal periods in human history – the Crusades; the Renaissance; the revolutions of America and France; the Victorian period. Admittedly, it does do a quite kack-handed job of portraying certain aspects of these events owing to the fact that the French Canadian developers at Ubisoft Montreal clearly have some sort of gripe with the British. Despite this, the series certainly is worth an avenue of gaming worth exploring as a way to pique one’s interest in European history.
Once you’re done with Assassins Creed you can move on to some of the titles produced by the Swedes at Paradox Interactive. Playing the strategy games produced by these fellows is tantamount to studying a degree in history, from the Dark Ages right through to the Cold War. These self-styled “masters of strategy” have a unique format to their historical titles that allow you to bend the world to your awe, but all whilst having the history of the period contextually bombarded at you. If you’re unable to take someone on a comprehensive tour of the Holy Roman Empire or tell them a day-by-day account of Operation Barbarossa after playing the likes of Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis IV, Victoria 2 and Hearts or Iron 3, then you must be doing something wrong.
If you want to take a more military approach to your studies, you can always pair some of Paradox’ titles with the Total War series. Learn how to rule over a kingdom and a dynasty in Crusader Kings and then get some hands-on experience in medieval warfare with Medieval: Total War 2. Likewise oversee the diplomatic, commercial, and political expansion of your empire in Europa Universalis IV and then lose yourself in the smoke and shot of Enlightenment-era warfare with Empire: Total War or its spin-off Napoleon: Total War. For a more maritime slant, there’s Naval Action, set for release next year. If you’re more of an FPS kind of gamer, explore exhilarating and meticulously researched historical shooters like Red Orchestra 2 and Verdun, set during the Battle of Stalingrad and the Western Front of WWI respectively.
It’s not just history where games can excel in broadening our minds however. If you’re anything like me, the places that video games lead your curiosity will expose you to a myriad of music and art as well.
The revolutionary free-roam sandbox genre pioneered by the Grand Theft Auto games has, over the years, provided us with a vast catalogue of open-world action adventure titles that can do an unexpectedly sterling job of broadening our horizons in music, art and travel. The most obvious examples are of course the GTA titles themselves, which take place in [albeit satirically] meticulous imitations of some of the world’s most famous cities; New York, Los Angeles, Miama, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, across a period of time that spans 1984 to the present day will all the iconic music, fashion and issues of the eras thrown into the immersive mix. Over a decade of playing these games, and those that the genre has bore – Mafia II; True Crime/Sleeping Dogs; Red Dead Redemption, as well as sandbox RPGs like the Fallout series – has provided yours truly with a musical education from Mozart to N.W.A and an appreciation for a good cinematic narrative that helped grow my love of film in turn.
However, it is the wealth of hardcore simulation games available to PC owners in particular that is perhaps the greatest testament to the educational merits of gaming. From flight simulators like the WWII series Il2: Sturmovik, to rail sims like Trainz and Train Simulator 2015, and even things like Fishing Simulator or Farming Simulator, there’s something for everyone no matter where your curiosities lead you. I’m confident I could actually fly a Spitfire from playing the above-mentioned Il2: Sturmovik title Cliffs of Dover - set during the Battle of Britain. Likewise, my 9 year-old nephew has developed an almost unhealthy obsession with railways from playing TS2015 that would make Michael Portillo look like a complete amateur.
From sowing the seeds of aspiration for budding enthusiasts – be they designers, engineers or even train drivers – to sparking a love of history, music, cinema, travel, motoring, flying, sailing, or hunting – just to name a few – video games are truly some of the great media of our time. Anyone who says otherwise clearly hasn’t seen the vastness of what they have to offer us.
Gaming. What is it good for? Absolutely everything.